Gameathon: Exploration is the heart of Sunless Skies

This is no AAA game but the world it contains is vibrant and genuinely breathtaking at times.
A screenshot from Sunless Skies.
A screenshot from Sunless Skies.

HYDERABAD : In 2015, Sunless Sea put Failbetter Games on the map. A survival/roguelike game, with strong storytelling and exploration elements, Sunless Sea managed to stand out from every other game in that genre thanks to the strength of its atmosphere and writing. Inevitably, a sequel was announced and did exceedingly well on Kickstarter, and now it’s out in the world - so how does Sunless Skies hold up?

Sunless Skies is set in the High Wilderness - a lawless expanse of space - amidst a burgeoning conflict between the Victorian Empire and its independently-minded colonies. Against this backdrop, you play the captain of a spacefaring ship - locomotive, actually, because this game really takes the ‘steam’ part of steampunk seriously! - out to make your fortune or, at the very least, survive.

Once you’ve chosen a few traits for your new captain, you’re thrust into the Reach, the starting region of Sunless Skies. After a short tutorial, you’re more or less left to your own devices. Exploration is the heart of Sunless Skies, and the Reach begins as a canvas with the tiniest portion filled in; the rest is out there, waiting for you to stumble across it.

However, dangers also lurk in the skies; from pirates to maddened explorers to swarms of giant bees and worse creatures, there’s no shortage of threats capable of having your little locomotive for lunch. Balancing those impulses - the urge to explore and fill in more of the map versus the caution required to survive what’s out there - is the core tension of the game, and you’ll feel it constantly push or pull you in a given direction at any time.

It doesn’t hurt that Sunless Skies is a beautiful game. This is no AAA game, but the world it contains is vibrant and genuinely breathtaking at times. Little touches, such as the puffs of steam vented from your locomotive as it overheats, really bring it to life. The sound design deserves a shout-out as well - the little creaks and groans as your locomotive glides through space really do pull you in. Much like Sunless Sea before it, the writing is perhaps the best part of Sunless Skies.

The descriptions of the various ports you visit, the conversations you have with your crew, the encounters in various locations - all of them are well-written, certainly, but they also have an aura of strangeness about them that draws you in and makes you seek them out. It’s a strange and beautiful world, but the sense of ‘place’ that it is is simply unrivaled. I had never played a game quite like Sunless Sea before, so I hesitated to compare it to others. Now, however, I can say that Sunless Skies is an improvement in almost every way. This is a stupendous game, one I’ve barely scratched the surface of; and I can’t wait to explore the High Wilderness some more.

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The New Indian Express